Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Preacher's Wife Preaches

I'm not particularly comfortable with the word "sin." Bob likes to use the term "broken" to indicate what imperfect creatures we humans are -- given to selfishness and greed, and I like that better. However, there's no getting around the fact that many Christians believe fervently in the notion of sin and that we need to repent and to be forgiven. They also seem to believe that they're the arbiters of who needs to be forgiven for what, as well as which sins are worse than others. I don't have that personal pipeline to God's brain, so I interpret sin as any act that takes us away from God and God's love. Dividing ourselves from others divides us from God, because God is in everybody.

This year, the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) has been in the throes of the issue that has been dividing many mainline Christian denominations in recent years. The national body (based on regional body votes) has recently opted to get rid of the language in our bylaws that prohibited ordination of LGBTs. In the Presbyterian church, all our leaders are ordained (not just ministers). This means that deacons and elders in the churches (lay people), as well as ministers, are, theoretically, no longer going to be judged by their sexual orientation. This is a huge, huge step for the denomination, and believe me, there are many who are very unhappy, many churches who've chosen to leave the PCUSA.

If you interpret sin the way I do, we are to do our best not to hurt any of God's creation (a difficult task, because, basically, almost all life has to kill something in order to survive, but we can try to lessen the damage we do, and we can certainly focus on trying to keep suffering at a minimum, even when we have to kill to eat). Most of us can't live up to that tall order, which is why we've been given grace (but that's a topic for a different sermon from the preacher's wife). It's basically impossible to make it through even one day without hurting someone, but we should try.

When we were first married, I once said to Bob, "Hate the act, not the person committing it." (I'm very good at giving him advice that's difficult for me to follow.) He quotes me all the time, even though that quote was not original to me. You've probably also heard, "Hate the sin, not the sinner." Today, we seem to live in a world in which we do nothing but hate the person instead of the act. Not only do we "hate the sinner," but we decide who is sinning the most, and we punish, through exclusion, those we think are doing so.

The day that I can stand up and say that LGBTs are sinners, purely because they happen to be LGBTs will be the day I can stand up and say that all those over six feet tall are sinners, or all those who have fair skin. We're not sinners because we're born with certain God-given traits. We're sinners because we act in ways that hurt others.

Because we are all broken, we have absolutely no right to decide someone can't be a church leader just because he or she is a "sinner." That would automatically disqualify all of us. I need much better reasoning than that. When I was first chosen to be a deacon at the church we used to attend in Connecticut, I went through an orientation process in which we were taught what holding this position in our church meant. At the time, one of our leaders was stressing how important it is to carefully choose the leaders of the church and how she'd once belonged to a church in which they'd had a very difficult decision to make about someone who'd expressed an interest in becoming a deacon. Finally, she said, they'd had to turn to the Scriptures, and based on what they'd found, had decided this person wasn't fit for the position (of course, she had completely ignored the fact that for hundreds and hundreds of years, the Church turned to Scripture to keep women from being leaders).

I remember thinking at the time, "Well, boy, if you're going to turn to Scripture to make such decisions, then I don't know of a single middle class American who could be a church leader." For instance, not one person sitting around that table had sold everything they had in order to follow Christ, which is exactly what Jesus told us to do. Judging by most of our physiques, we're obviously all eating way more than our share of the food on this planet, rather than taking only what we need and sharing with those who have none, something else Scripture teaches us to do. Just by nature of being middle class Americans, we're all far more privileged than the majority of other humans on the planet. We're part of the world hunger problem, because we all go on living our comfortable lives, choosing to eat whatever we want whenever we want, very concerned about how it looks and tastes. We don't have a clue what it's like to eat whatever comes our way, regardless of taste, because who knows when we might get the chance to eat again. Nonetheless, there are those who will tell you that our "sins" aren't as bad as others' "sins."

One of the most disturbing aspects of our society's judging the sinner is that the judgers, for all intents and purposes, are basically saying, "Okay, if you're open and honest and tell us you're living in a loving, homosexual relationship, then you can't be one of us." (Not much has changed, really, since the days when lepers, who might contaminate the healthy, were sent off to live outside the community. We just have different ways of doing the same thing.) Yet, with the exception of the ways all couples hurt each other when they live together day after day, who are these people hurting? If we're going to go around judging sinners, I'd far prefer to judge the man who serially cheats on his spouse, breaking hearts left and right, over the one who is loving and kind to his life partner.

Those judgers also seem to be saying, "We don't want you if we can tell you're a sinner. However, if you sin, and we don't know about it, well, that's okay." Therefore, a heterosexual leader of the church who beats his wife, or one who beats her children, is okay. A man who discreetly sells drugs to teenagers or who cheats his employees, so he can take home a bigger bonus this year (especially if he's giving plenty of money to the church) is fine. But the woman who lives down the street with her partner and the two crack-addicted babies they adopted, the same one who volunteers at the soup kitchen, isn't.

I (because I don't have that aforementioned pipeline) can't say for a fact, but I'm pretty sure that if Jesus were to come back today, he'd be quite appalled. My guess is that this time his question would be, "Did you not listen to anything I taught you about love and acceptance?"


Courtney said...

I am pretty sure we make Jesus' heart hurt on a minute-by-minute basis - partly because it is so HARD to follow him! I struggle with humility, vanity, turning the other cheek, and on and on we go - that said I keep trying, and as a member of the Presbyterian church I am terribly proud of my denomination today - terribly, terribly proud. I remember quite a while ago when *some* Presybeterians had the nerve to say out loud that medical marijuana should be okay, and there was OUTRAGE. My mom clipped out this cartoon - can't remember what one but it was two little old people talking to another person saying "We're Presbyterians, but the not the pot-smoking kind." she thought it was hilarious!

Anonymous said...

This is so beautifully written. Thank you!

litlove said...

What an interesting post. I've been going to a reiki practitioner and the chats we have are some of the most productive in my life at the moment. Just the other week, she said to me, Victoria, all this fuss going on inside you about whether you are a good person or a bad person. Give it up! You're a person, which means you do good things and you do bad things. Get over it.

It struck me as infinitely good sense.

Stefanie said...

Well said Emily! Whatever happened to judge not lest ye be judged and let he who is without sin cast the first stone? All those judgers obviously haven't been studying their scripture very well.

marie said...

Thanks for sharing your blog with me today. Very well said!

Emily Barton said...

Court, oh, I struggle with all those things, too, as well as pride (as in being proud of our denomination these days). Love that cartoon as you describe it.

Sara, oh, so glad to hear that. I was worried it was disjointed, but I'll take your word for it and believe it's beautifully written.

Litlove, that most definitely is infinitely good sense. Now, if only we could all make ourselves believe it all the time.

Stef, yes, I always wonder what ever happened to those passages. It's amazing, though, how many people will say something extremely judgmental to me and then claim that they're not judging.

Marie, glad you liked it. Feel free to share with other like-minded souls in our little community.